Sunday, 30 May 2010

Eyes Wide Open

We had a date night planned last night, but nothing much to do - my husband vetoed Streetdance, I vetoed Sex and the City 2 and neither of us fancied Four Lions or Hot Tub Time Travel.

So the choice was between a movie about the early life of Mussolini and an Israeli film, Eyes Wide Open about a gay affair between two men in the Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem. I didn’t enjoy the last film we saw about Italian politics (if you were disturbed by snoring during a showing of Divo at the Screen on the Green, Islington last year, then it was probably me) we opted for the latter. ‘I don’t think we’ll need to book,’ said my husband. ‘It’s a bit of a special interest film.’

Anyway, Eyes Wide Open was a quite extraordinary experience. It’s slow and underwritten; a deadly serious film with flickers of humour. There are sections which drag, and there’s only one explosive moment when someone says exactly what’s in his heart - but that very reserve makes it a film that stayed with me, making me think long after the movie has ended.

It’s the story of Ezri and Aaron. Ezri, little more than a teenager, has been thrown out of his yeshiva (religious college) and is homeless and jobless. Aaron, married with four sons, takes pity on him and gives him a job and somewhere to stay at the butcher’s shop he has just inherited from his dead father. Slowly, a relationship developes between the men. And gradually the viewer realises that everyone in the claustrophobic community around them, including Aaron’s wife, knows exactly what is going on.

It’s that realisation that makes me want to see the film again. At first you think that Aaron is unaware of the nature of Ezri’s love for another man - that he is innocent and unworldly behind his big beard. But in fact Aaron - and everyone else - realises instantly that Ezri is gay, and the film is about the effect that knowledge has on a society held together by strict rules, enforced by the ‘morality police.’

I’ve seen a few reviews of the film suggesting that it’s about the homophobic nature of religious groups, particularly Orthodox Jews. But as we drove home from the cinema there were two stories on the news. One was about the gay couple in Malawi sentenced to hard labour for announcing their engagement. Pressure from the international community - Elton John, Madonna, the UN Secretary General – had forced their release. Liberal Western values had saved the day.

And yet…and yet…there was the story of David Laws. A government minister for 16 days before his own actions brought him down. David Laws was so keen to maintain the fiction that his landlord was just that, even though they had been lovers for nine years, that he wrongly claimed his rent as legitimate expenses. Once this was revealed by the Daily Telegraph, he painfully ‘outed’ himself and resigned.

Can you really call a sexual relationship a ‘partnership’ when it is kept a secret from family and friends? And if the relationship was really secret, how come it was revealed so quickly?

David Laws’ secrecy and shame made him break the rules. Now he is paying the price. The Daily Telegraph, like the morality police of Mea Shearim in Eyes Wide Open, knew his secret. And I asked myself, how does our liberal Western society work? Are we different enough from the religious communities of Malawi and Jerusalem? What was David Laws so scared of? And will he feel liberated now - or unbearably exposed?
(You can watch the trailer with English subtitles here )

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Della Says...the M Word

Have I got a treat for you today! A guest post from Keris Stainton to mark the publication this month of her debut novel Della Says OMG a funny honest tale of a teenage girl's first love.
Everything seems to be going right for 17-year-old Della when she kisses her long term crush Dan at a party. But she's got an enemy, someone who has stolen her diary where she's long recorded her most secret thoughts. Soon Della's secrets are being broadcast on Facebook and by texts. Will her romance with Dan take the exposure? And who's doing this to Della?
This could have been a book all about the mystery - who took the diary and why? It isn't. It's a book about 21st century shame, about owning your own sexuality. Della has right-on parents who take it for granted tht their daughters will have sex lives. Her best friend has been having sex for ages. But she still feels utterly humiliated when her secrets become public.Underneath the breezy jokey style (a completely authentic teenage girl voice, down to the shoes 'which kill') there's a serious theme about girls and sex.
Sex has to be one of the most difficult and interesting things to write about in teen fiction. How do you get it right without scandalising the gate-keepers - parents, teachers,librarians..even publishers. I relied on euphemism and hints a lot - I suspect a 15 year old boy will read aspects of When I was Joe quite differently from an 11 year old girl.
To mark the publication of Della Says OMG, I'm giving away a signed copy - so please leave a cmment if you want to be in the draw. Thanks so much Keris for donating the copy and for writing this great post..

When I started writing Della, all I had was the idea of a missing diary. I worked out fairly quickly that the diary's content had to be pretty embarrassing in order for Della to be worried about someone having it (no flies on me) and I pretty much went straight to sex. Or rather, sexuality. Della's a teenager who's never had a boyfriend, never even been kissed and so I knew it would be something she worried about a lot. I knew she'd feel like her peers were more experienced than her. I knew she'd be concerned that everyone else was far more advanced than she was. And I knew she'd be afraid that people would find out how little experience she had. How did I know all this? Er. I used my imagination. Obviously. *coughs*

And once I'd decided to focus on Della's sexuality, it was very important to me that she mention masturbation. For a couple of reasons. Firstly, while male masturbation is part of our culture - from magazines like Zoo and Nuts to the casual bandying around of words like "tosser" and "wanker" - female masturbation is still so taboo. Even women don't tend to discuss it with each other the way men do. Although a few years ago I wrote an article about the first time you got a “funny feeling down there” and I got lots of really sweet and funny stories and great feedback from women who really identified with the piece. And, interestingly enough, so many first times took place when reading: Lace, Forever, The Thorn Birds and, er, The Fog were all mentioned.

Secondly, despite it being such an important step in learning about your own sexuality, it's rarely mentioned in teen fiction. A couple of years ago, I read a book called Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume, which features an essay by Lara M Zeises called The M Word. The essay begins with Zeises, age 7, discovering that touching herself feels good, "sometimes good enough to help me fall asleep", and how she didn't know what she was doing until she read Judy Blume's 1973 novel, Deenie. Deenie also touches her "special place" when she has trouble falling asleep and later in the book she asks a teacher, in an anonymous note, "Do normal people touch their bodies before they go to sleep and is it all right to do that?" (The teacher explains that, yes, masturbation is "normal and harmless".)

Zeises goes on to say that "relatively precious few novels even allude to girls getting their groove on by themselves" adding that one notable exception is Meg Cabot's All-American Girl: Ready or Not. I've since read Pop! by Aury Wallington, which also features a bit of female DIY. (Incidentally, in both Ready or Not and Pop!, the deed is done by sliding down in the bath and lying under the "faucet". Not only does that sound physically challenging, but also - unless American plumbing is more sophisticated than ours - presents a terrible scalding risk, no?) So with all of the above in mind, I had one of Della's diary extracts refer to her touching herself. And then later in the book, she discusses female masturbation with her best friend.

A few weeks ago, I went to see the authors Melvyn Burgess and William Nicholson in conversation about sex in YA fiction. They talked about porn, about where they learned about sex when they were teens, even about *having* sex when they were teens. And they agreed that it is weird that there's so little actual sex in teen fiction, despite the fact that a) teens think about sex all the time and b) society - and other media - is so sexualised. I hadn't really thought about it from that perspective, but they were absolutely right. I didn't want Della to be an "issue" book. I didn't want to be controversial or sensationalist or shocking. I just think it's important to write about sex honestly, naturally, unapologetically so that's what I tried to do. I really hope I succeeded.

Happy Anniversary!

I've got a guest post today at the ABBA blog here

But I also wanted to mention - as I did briefly in yesterday's comments - that this blog is one year old this week. Thank you to everyone who has read and commented. Many of you have become valued friends, even if we've never met. I have enjoyed blogging far more than I expected to, and that's down to the great people who pop by and visit. Here's to the year ahead..

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Problem with Pink

Bags or shoes? Well? Which one do you prefer? And should you feel demeaned by the question?

Meg Rosoff has been sounding off on her blog about the Queen of Teen award - admittedly in a qualified fashion. Yes, she says, many of the books featured in the award are excellent and worthy and it’s great that there is an award honouring them. But why, she asks, must the award's website be so pink and glittery and determinedly trivial. She’s particularly upset by the Bags or Shoes question which was part of a questionnaire answered by last year’s winner Louise Rennison. ‘Why is so much marketing to girls swaddled in sparkly pink and demeaning language?’ she asks.

The comments that follow are well worth reading. Emily Gale makes the point that pink glittery covers are a marketing decision, the books themselves often turn out to be hard-hitting and feistier than one would expect. Anthony McGowan thinks that romances - including Jane Austen’s - shrivel the soul of the reader because they suggest that girls are only fulfilled by snogging/marriage - he suggests that Robert Muchamore is more of a feminist than most teen chicklit writers. The Queen of Teen contest organisers say the pink packaging is a shortcut to instantly engage their target readership - and it works, viz the 10,000 votes received last year.

So, how demeaning is that Bags or Shoes question? In a culture which makes a fuss over the Prime Minister’s answer to the searching question ‘What is your favourite biscuit?’ I can’t get too worked up about it. Surely what matters is the answer, not the question. Authors are free to talk about their walking boots, their laptop bags, their running shoes – they might even discuss the symbolically womb-like space of the bag, against the phallic quality of the high heel (Feminist art theory again….)

My daughter is 13 and slap bang in the middle of the Queen of Teen demographic. What does she think of pink covers and marketing, I asked. Does she feel they demean young readers? Well, she said, when you see a pink cover you do think it’s probably a book aimed at girls, you expect a romantic comedy. But you don’t just pick a book because it’s pink and glitzy. You read the title, you read the blurb. You look at the image on the cover.
‘Pink books aren’t a problem for girls,’ she said. ‘They just mean we have more choice. we know that all sorts of books have pink covers. They’re only a problem for boys - because they mean boys have less choice than girls.’

Tall Story

If this blog has a grandmother it is undoubtedly the very wonderful Candy Gourlay, whose blog made me realise how worthwhile social networking could be. In doing so she unleashed a monster, but that's another story.
Anyway Candy's book Tall Story is about to be published, and what a great book it is. The story of a hugely tall Filopino boy who travels to London to be reunited with his mother and basketball-mad sister; it's moving, funny, dramatic and memorable. One of those books where you're laughing and crying at the same time - that sounds incredibly trite, but it's true.

Candy isn't just an incredibly talented writer, she's also an illustrator and film-maker. Here's the trailer she's created for her book. Enjoy and share!

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Author's Voice - a guest post by Nicola Morgan

There's a scene in Almost True when Ty thinks about what his life would be like if he'd never witnessed the crime that put him into police protection. What if his life had just stayed as it was. What would he have missed? Would his life have been better?
And I'm writing a book right now about a girl whose life is transformed by chance - by the random numbers she marks on a lottery ticket.
Chance, coincidence, destiny, free will - the tiny choices,random events that can change our lives completely are the subject of a new YA novel by Nicola Morgan, Wasted. It's a tremendously clever book which doesn't just examine the subject of chance - it givs the reader the opportunity to decide the way the story flows by the toss of a coin.
As a reader I was pulled into the love story of Jack and Jess, and ended the book feeling torn apart - tearful and a bit wobbly. As a writer I was stunned by Nicola's craft - and, indeed, sheer craftiness. It's a must-read.

One of the distinctive elements of Wasted is the voice, which I've seen described as 'teacher-like' and 'god-like' but which reminded me of an omniscient ninetenth century novelist. There are certain similarities to Melvin Burgess's powerful Nicholas Dane, a modern version of Dickens' Oliver Twist.
When Nicola offered to write a guest post as part of her blog tour for Wasted I suggested she wrote about that voice, and the tricky business of writing in third person present tense - an unusual choice.

So...over to Nicola...

Hi Keren and thanks so much for giving me a guest slot on your blog! As you know, I loved your When I Was Joe and have been lucky enough to read the proof of the wonderful sequel, Almost True. Gritty realism at its best!

You wanted me to talk about the unusual voice in Wasted and you commented that third person + present tense is a difficult combination. Indeed – and risky!

I don’t know about you, but I find that in many ways I can’t choose the voice – it kind of chooses itself. Yes, I know very quickly if it’s a voice I want to pursue; yes, I can control it once it’s got going. And yes, there are two aspects that I do choose – the tense and the person. (Though even those choices feel more like instinct or just trial and error.) But the rest of it is all a bit spooky.

So, why present tense for Wasted? I’m not a big fan of present tense – though it works brilliantly for your When I Was Joe and Almost True. It’s hard to say why it works or doesn’t, but I know that immediately after finishing Wasted, I launched into writing something else present tense and showed it to my agent. She said she loved it but not the present tense because it made it too “detached”. You’d think that present tense would make something feel less detached, but as soon as I looked into it I realised she was right. I think it’s because in past tenses there are more ways to describe the exact time-scale, so you can vary pace and tension, whereas the present tense can feel very same-paced. Present tense + first person (which is the usual combination for present tense) has the benefit that it gets you right into the MC’s mind, but present tense + third person gives a kind of languorous, dispassionate feel that you don’t always want.

Wasted couldn’t be first person, because there are two MCs and the story requires a narrator who sees into the minds of many of the characters, which no single person could do. So, third person was my only option.

Except it’s not so simple - because it’s not genuinely third person... The narrator is a distinct character in itself, speaking for itself and for us, and sometimes to us. Sometimes, the narrator even says “we”. The narrator is near-omniscient, invisible, and non-existent; dispassionate, uninvolved, interested but disinterested. Its only function is to guide what the reader sees, so, although people (myself included) have often described it as “godlike”, it’s not, in the sense that it does nothing to control or create. It simply guides the reader.

Its voice it is also sometimes sardonic, sometimes didactic, sometimes even patronising – all things that I knew some readers might hate, and which therefore made it very risky to write. It’s maybe like an actor who has a very distinctive voice or style – this can really annoy some people, even if others love it. Robin Williams might be an example: he has such an extraordinary (in the literal sense) voice, manner and style, that if you don’t like him you seriously won’t like him. I knew all along that Wasted would be a love-or-hate book and that it was entirely possible that the first people to read it could have hated it or put other people off.

So, why did I do it? After all, the last thing I want is for people to hate any of my books. I’m insecure as anyone.

First, as I say, I have much less control over my books than I should. The narrator just happened, or that’s how it felt.

Second, I was bored and needed to do something different. There’s a bit in Wasted about Jess’s mother, Sylvia, saying that she is “creative and does things in ways that do not fit in boxes. It’s much safer in a box but there are no rainbows.” Although I am in every other way not like Sylvia – trust me! – I think that bit is me. I like unusual things, breaking rules, and I needed to do something on the edge. I’d been horribly busy for the previous three years and writing had become hard work instead of my passion. So, I started Wasted in a spirit of adventure and abandon. I told my agent I was writing something but that I didn’t want to show it to her yet, and I didn’t want the pressure of deadline or even a contract. Same to my editor. Then, when I felt comfortable, I showed my agent, saying, “If you think it’s rubbish, I’m still writing it.” She loved it. We showed my editor, and I was still in the “I don’t care, I’m writing it anyway” frame of mind. She loved it, too. And of course, I didn’t say no to the contract!

The fact that neither of them queried or doubted the voice gave me confidence. Actually, neither of them even mentioned it. Which is odd, considering just how strange and risky it was. Recently, my editor said, “The moment I read the first draft chapters for Wasted I knew that this was something special... ‘hairs-tingling-on-the-neck’ feeling…. I think it has to do with the originality of the tone and voice…”

I feel I haven’t said anything very fascinating or useful for you! I think that’s because voice begins so subconsciously. (Do you find that?) You know how people say that writing is x% inspiration and y% perspiration? Well, I think voice is much of the inspiration bit and the skill comes in controlling it after it’s actually on its way.

All I know is that, risky or not, I am so glad I did it. I don’t expect everyone to like it but I’ve now had enough positive feedback to tell me that it’s worked for many readers in the way I dreamt of.

Besides, since Wasted is all about risk-taking, it seems quite appropriate that I should have taken a risk in writing it. Let’s just hope my career survives!

Copyright © Nicola Morgan 2010

Nicola Morgan is an award-winning author for teenagers, with successful titles such as Fleshmarket, Deathwatch, Blame My Brain and Sleepwalking. She prefers to forget that she also used to write Thomas the Tank Engine Books... When she's not writing, she loves speaking in schools, and at festivals and conferences in the UK and Europe, She also enjoys messing around on Twitter or her blogs. Nicola blogs for writers here and has set up a special blog about her brand new book, Wasted - you can join the activities and contribute in lots of ways here.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Silly me..

I was so excited about the Young Minds longlist thing that I forgot to announce the winner of the signed copy of Girl Aloud by Emily Gale. The winner is Rhoda - congratulations - I think you have your book already. I'm sure you'll enjoy it. Thanks to everyone for entering, and why not have a go at winning a fabulous signed copy of Luisa Plaja's Swapped by a Kiss? All you have to do is comment on the post below - and follow if you're not already following.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Swapped by a Kiss giveaway - and some news

Meg Cabot, queen of teen rom coms called Luisa Plaja's Split by a Kiss 'cute,sweet and funny' and the sequel 'Swapped by a Kiss' has all the same ingredients.
American Rachel - the spiky unpredictable one in Split is in England and by some magic swaps bodies with her English friend Jo. And Rachel's boyfriend David is kissing Jo! I've only just started reading it (so this giveaway competition will be on for as long as it takes me) but already I'm hooked by the pace and humour. When I read Split I was really intrigued by Rachel, so it's great to get inside her head (even when it's inside someone else's body)
Luisa has been kind enough to donate a signed copy, so this is your chance to win!
Same rules as before - you need to follow the blog and comment to be entered, but this time I'll add that if you retweet the comp on twitter or mention it on your blog you can have two entries.
And a little bit of news of my own. When I Was Joe has been longlisted for the 2010 Young Minds Book Award. Young Minds is the UK's only national charity committed to improving the mental health and emotional well-being of all children and young people, and its annual Book Award 'seeks to raise awareness and create understanding of mental health needs of children and young people. Books such as those submitted for the award can help break the isolation experienced by young people and demonstrate that their feelings and problems are not unique.'
There are twelve books on the longlist, which will be considered for a shortlist of six. The books are: Dear Dylan, by Siobhan Curham (Authorhouse, Desperate Measures, by Laura Summers (Piccadilly,Ember Fury, by Cathy Brett (Headline,
Ice Lolly, by Jean Ure (Harper Collins Children’s Books,Inside, by J A Jarman (Andersen),Lottie Biggs is Not Desperate by Hayley Long (Macmillan Children’s Books,
No Way To Go, by Bernard Ashley, (Hachette), Running on the Cracks, by Julia Donaldson (Egmont, Them and Us, by Bali Rai (Barrington Stoke),The Truth about Leo, by David Yelland (Penguin, When I was Joe, by Keren David (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books)and Zelah Green, Queen of Clean, by Vanessa Curtis (Egmont)

Past winners include the amazing Tabitha Suzuma and the Canadian writer Miriam Toews.

Remembering Nick and Marcin

A mother's account of life on the streets of London for teenage boys in The Times. "We all react in different ways: some keep their teenagers locked up or supervised, others let them out with spare money in their pockets, just in case."
She talks about two recent deaths in London. Nick Pearton, 16 was chased through a park in Sydenham and stabbed. He ran to a local fast food shop (pictured) where his mother cradled him in her arms, but paramedics could not save his life.
Marcin Bilaszewski was attacked after getting off a bus at Finsbury Park station - my local tube station.
If mothers are scared for their sons on the streets of London, how do the boys themselves react? How do you grow up and become independent - and keep danger in proportion - when you read about Nick and Marcin?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Mash-up Approach to Settings

If you've read When I Was Joe (and if not, why not?) then you'll know that a park and the playground equipment in it play an important part in the plot. Supposedly the park is in Hackney, near the homes of Ty and his friend Arron. It's a little patch of green in a deprived neighbourhood, a place to play that becomes a place of fear and horror when a killing takes place there.
Only two readers so far have spotted that the park actually exists, but it's not in Hackney. It's actually in leafier Crouch End, very near where I live. I suppose I could have spent ages researching Hackney parks, working out where Ty lived, and how he’d got in and out of the park. Instead I magically transferred my local park south and east, filled in the geography around it - the High Street where Ty lives to the south, Arron’s estate to the east - and found it easy to remember what went where when I wrote those scenes.
Similarly I suppose I could have found an actual high street for Ty to live in, and spent time describing the shops there. I didn’t. I had in mind various busy London streets – Stroud Green Road in Finsbury Park; the Lower Clapton Road. But really Ty’s home is based mainly on my experiences of living in a very different shopping street. CornelisSchuytstraat where we lived in Amsterdam is an exceptionally chi-chi boutiquey kind of street, where cardigans cost 200€ and the local food store only sells organic produce. But we lived above a shop - a travel agent - and from that I know how one makes friends with the shopkeepers, and lives with the smells and noise of their businesses. How as a parent one is more likely to leave children temporarily unattended - because they’re not really home alone when there’s an office full of adults in the same building. And how a street that is busy and bustling during the day is eerily empty at night.
The small town where Ty goes to live is deliberately bland and dull - in contrast to the multi-cultural kaleidoscope of London. Although geographically it’s further north, the small-town feel was definitely informed by the towns where I grew up and went to school, Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield. However the geography of the town was roughly based on Crouch End where I live - or at least on my daughter’s walk to school, just to help me remember whether the hills went up or down and where the High Street was in relation to Joe's home and school. The layout of Joe and Michelle's safe house however, came from the semi that my husband grew up in, in north Manchester.
So, I move houses and parks around. I merge streets and towns. Sometimes I home in on an actual place and try and describe it - the area around Finsbury Park station, for example, with its bowling alley and its mobile phone shops and gum-splattered pavements. At other times I’m deliberately vague and generic. To Ty, ‘outside London’ is a much blurrier fuzzier place than his home town.
Author Karen McCombie set her popular Ally's World series around Crouch End. Some readers make special trips to our area to see the clock tower, Alexandra Palace and other exciting features of the neighbourhood. My daughter was a big fan, and when we moved back to Crouch End from Amsterdam we did quite a few drives around trying to work out exactly where everyone lived. When I met Karen I was under orders to ask her for exact addresses. Of course they don’t exist….Ally’s world is a little addition to Crouch End’s existing streets.
Gillian Philip, author of the fabulous Crossing the Line and Bad Faith sets the latter, a dystopia about fundamentalist religion, in an unnamed Scotland. Her anonymous city setting powerfully reminded me of the tenement flat I used to own in Glasgow. Later Gillian and I became friends and I told her how much her book made me think of the Govanhill area of Glasgow. She was impressed as she’d based that aspect of the novel on her grandmother’s flat which was - yes! - in Govanhill. We checked further. I used to live one street away from Gillian’s granny.
Many authors write about actual real-life places and their work is enriched by a strong sense of place. Others delight in creating made-up worlds. My approach is a bit of a mash-up.
Anyway the fort in the park is falling apart. There's a consultation meeting to decide what happens to it. I'm hoping it'll be restored, just as it is. After all, it's in a book!

A winner!

Congratulations to Rhoda, winner of the signed copy of Girl Aloud whose name was plucked from a hat this morning. Just email your address to
Stand by for more signed book competitions very soon.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Girl Aloud Giveaway!

One of the most wonderful things about getting published has been meeting lots of YA and children's authors.
If you're embarking on a new career you couldn't pick a more welcoming bunch of people. They are - collectively - warm, funny, friendly, encouraging, knowledgable, entertaining and big-hearted.
Some have become friends to meet for coffee or lunch, ask for advice and discuss how best we can promote our books. It turned out that I knew one of them already - Kaye Umansky, creator of Pongwiffy the witch - lives three doors away from me. Others live many miles away but feel like neighbours, they're Twitter pals or Facebook friends or both - available for chats and banter all hours of day and night.
To celebrate the general wonderfulness of the YA and children's writing world I'm going to have the occasional signed book giveaway on the blog. To enter you need to be a follower of the blog - just leave a comment under this post if you'd like to win and I'll pull a winner from a hat in a few weeks.
The first giveaway is Girl Aloud by Emily Gale. This is an incredibly rare item in the Northern hemisphere - it'll probably be worth a fortune one day - because Emily lives in Melbourne, which makes her a Twitter/Facebooky friend. She's written an all-English book though, the story of Kass whose dad is desperate for her to shine and enters her for X Factor although she can't sing for toffee and has no interest at all in being famous. I loved the way the characters slowly reveal themselves to us, and the plot refuses to conform to stereotypes.
Girl Aloud came out in the UK in September but has only recently been published in Australia. At Emily's launch party she gave away a pile of signed YA books by Australian and British authors. When I was packing up a copy of When I Was Joe to send halfway around the world I had the idea for this blog feature. I'm hoping it will become a regular thing so spread the word!

Saturday, 1 May 2010

What next?

How does a writer decide what to write next? Do you stick to the same genre and style as your previous book(s) or strike out in a new direction?

The question was posed by Anne M Leone (one of the Undiscovered Voices winners), after I blogged about my latest book. She wrote: I was wondering how similar you imagine the new book will be to your previous novels about Ty. I've been thinking a lot lately about what one writes after one's first book/series. Did you keep the same setting? Same type of genre/age group? Same themes? Or did you not make any conscious decisions at all, but just write the next idea you had?

I’m very new to writing fiction. Just over two years ago my only experience of creative writing as an adult was failing the Open University Writing Fiction short course, because I couldn’t get my head around the short story form. When I started writing When I Was Joe I was most interested to see if I could actually write a whole book. I didn’t think much beyond that.
When I finished writing Joe I wanted to try writing in two voices. I started work on something about twin boys. I wrote about 15 chapters, then the story fizzled out - mainly because I had no idea where it was meant to be going. I showed it to my writing group. They weren’t keen. Later I showed it to my agent. She didn’t like it. So that one was abandoned…although I’m still perversely fond of it and I might revisit it one day.
Then one day I woke up with a killer first sentence for a sequel to Joe, plus ideas for the first three chapters, and a great chapter ending. I sat down and wrote it, even though I know it was complete madness and a total waste of time to write a sequel when I didn’t even have an agent, let alone a book deal. But I couldn’t stop writing it (and rewriting huge swathes after my writing group had their say). I’d written about a third of Almost True by the time I got a deal for Joe, and my editor at Frances Lincoln read it and offered for that too.
I finished the first draft of Almost True in October 2009, and had made all the major structural changes by the end of the month.
Then I madly signed up to write a novel in a month. I had a vague dystopia idea knocking around my head. I started writing…and hated it. My narrator felt insipid, the plot was turgid. Clearly I needed time to clear my head, move on from Ty, spend a bit of time thinking up a killer idea.
But it didn’t work like that. Halfway through November I was reading a news story about a big lottery win and wham! I had my new idea. I had the same feeling that I’d had with witness protection. This is a subject I can write about. This is a subject with depth.
So, what stays the same? The setting is London, and it’s contemporary. It’s told in the first person. It’s aimed at teenagers, boys and girls. It’s based on a news story, and I’m researching it much as I would a newspaper or magazine feature. At the heart of it there’s a teenager faced with a life-changing event. I try and build believable rounded characters, I try and keep the pace reasonably fast-moving. I try and create a protagonist who is human and flawed yet sympathetic.
And what’s different? The narrator is a girl, not a boy. I’m finding that more difficult - but that’s possibly because Ty’s voice is still strong in my head. The themes are completely different. The main character is older than Ty, the language she uses is a little more complicated. It’s not a thriller. It’s got more romance and it’s more obviously funny. It’s written in the past tense, which is messing with my mind - I hate it - but it does work for the story and it makes me feel it’s very different from When I Was Joe.
I’ve seen very successful authors labelled by their genre, under pressure to come up with the same formula again and again. I’ve seen some talented writers actually come up with pretty much the same book again and again. I'd love their success, but until I have it I want to develop my range. I’m still learning to write fiction. I’d rather attempt to build a reputation as a writer who can do different things than as a writer of ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ crime novels.
Having said all that, nagging away at the back of my mind is a third book about Ty. I’m not sure whether that's where it'll stay.